Search Continues In Diving Boat Fire Near Santa Cruz Island

Sep 2, 2019
Originally published on September 2, 2019 6:36 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Authorities say at least eight people are confirmed dead and dozens remain missing after what's being called a catastrophic boat fire off the coast of Southern California. The boat was a charter for a commercial diving trip over the holiday weekend. Captain Monica Rochester of the U.S. Coast Guard said search and rescue efforts continue.

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MONICA ROCHESTER: We will search all the way through the night into the morning, but I think we all should be prepared to move into the worst outcome.

CHANG: Authorities still do not know what caused the fire. NPR correspondent Kirk Siegler is at the U.S. Coast Guard station northwest of Los Angeles. He joins us now.

Hey, Kirk.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Hello, Ailsa.

CHANG: So can you just bring us up to speed? What have you learned so far?

SIEGLER: Well, we know - we were actually just briefed a short while ago from the authorities. And you heard the Coast Guard captain there. We know that this - there was a mayday call that came in at 3:30 this morning. And from where I'm standing, it's about 20 miles off the coast here. I'm at the Channel Islands Harbor on Santa Cruz Island, 20 miles as the crow flies. There was reports of a 75-foot diving vessel fully engulfed in flames. And, in fact, some of the audio from the initial call to the Coast Guard was released. And you can hear a man screaming, mayday, mayday, mayday, and saying he can't breathe. It's - it was a harrowing situation, as you can imagine. The Coast Guard says that at 7:30 this morning, the ship fully sank. Five crew members were rescued and transported here to the Coast Guard station where I'm at. This was part of a three-day diving trip that was scheduled to end over the holiday weekend and had taken off from Santa Barbara, just to the north of me, on Saturday. So a very sad story - and there's not a whole lot of hope, I think you could tell, in some of the authorities speaking that they're going to find many or any more survivors out there.

CHANG: Yeah. All right, so the search for survivors is continuing. What do we know about the investigation into how the fire started?

SIEGLER: Well, we know very little at this point, even hours now after it was initially reported. There has been some speculation. There's been some reports anyway - eyewitness reports of explosions. The sheriff speculated that maybe they were the scuba tanks going off. The Coast Guard says that this company was in full compliance and that they had, you know, clearly passed the required annual Coast Guard inspection in terms of safety. There's a lot of unanswered questions though. And we also got a pretty tersely worded statement from California Senator Dianne Feinstein calling it inconceivable, in fact. She said that with all the public safety regulations we have in place today - that a fire on this boat could lead to so much tragedy. She and others are, of course, calling for this investigation that will happen jointly with federal and local officials to look at, you know, what's in place, what needs to change. Were their fire-suppression systems up to code? And was the crew adequately trained? And how were they awake and not able to get in and help or potentially help anyone and get them off? A lot of unanswered questions at this point. It's safe to say it was just a very, very harrowing situation out there.

CHANG: Can you just take a moment to describe the area where the accident happened?

SIEGLER: Well, as I said, Santa Cruz Island is off the coast here. It's in the Channel Islands National Park. It's pretty remote, actually, by Southern California standards. You know, there aren't any services. It's mostly wilderness out there. There were boaters. It was pretty busy with the holiday weekend. And this vessel was sank and burned, you know, just 20 yards off the shore. And it's now fully at the bottom of the sea floor, where they've - sheriff - Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said that they had found the additional four more bodies that - down on the sea floor. It's safe to say that they're searching for more. He described the remoteness and some of the challenges just a short while ago. Let's listen to that.

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BILL BROWN: So you can imagine that of all scenarios - to be in a remote location, have a fire that occurs, have limited, if any, firefighting capabilities that can address that and then to have, all of a sudden, a fire that spread very, very rapidly, you couldn't ask for a worse situation.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Kirk Siegler.

Thank you very much, Kirk.

SIEGLER: You're welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.